Art and Communications







is “ART” a form of communicating beyond the ordinary capacity of the medium?


Then look at DEEP Ethology notes on Communication below:







COMMUNICATIONS is an attribute/enables CONNECTEDNESS, without which there would be no existence as we understand it.    Drilling down to the sub-atomic or reaching up to the cosmic we quickly feel we are on a thin edge of reality between two incomprehensibly limitless abysses–a ripple on the ocean of reality.  Even a glimpse of its beauty and terror is sublime and can be transformative.  But, in fact, it is often so unsettling in complexity or controversy that we “bracket it”–set it aside and move on (see A&O on EPOCHE); unfortunately (or maybe not) bracketing becomes denial. It is the limitless mystery that leads, in Einstein’s view, to true religion. (Read Einstein’s reply to Phyllis)



Conspecific Communications

Terms & Concepts related to communications:  Communication (ethological and sociobiological definitions), Physical attributes of Communication,  (and with respect to communication, compare & contrast the terms, vegetative, tonic, phasic, symbolic;  adaptive, coevolution, signal-to-noise ratio; ,  Discrete signals, Graded (continuous) signals, Composite signals, Metacommunication, Functions of Communication, Neighbor recognition (“Dear enemy”), Channels of communication (advantages and disadvantages), Intention movements, Displacement activity;  Kin recognition, Phenotype matching;  Compare and contrast: Priming Pheromones & Signaling Pheromones; Discrete signals & Graded (continuos) signals


Evolution of communications: ritualization, (and with respect to ritualization, define, compare & contrast, primary and secondary somatic responses and autonomic reflexes — Intention movements, perseverance,”snap decision” responses, ambivalent responses, alternating ambivalent movements,displacement, redirection,regressive, alimentary, circulatory, respiratory, thermoregulatory, lacrimatory, schematization, typical intensity, emancipation.   Consider the advantages and disadvantage of different sensory modalities (tactile, sound (pressure waves) . . . etc)




  • “an action on the part of one organism (or cell) that alters the probability pattern of behavior in another organism (or cell) in a fashion adaptive to either one or both of the participants” (Wilson (1975) quoted by AB4 ch12 p216).
  • “Any sharing of information”  (Smith (1984) in AB4; ch12 p216).
  • “the transmission of a signal from one animal to another such that the sender benefits, on average, from the response of the recipient”  (Slater (1983)  in AB4; ch12 p216).


remember: the term “ADAPTIVE” in these (as in most) contexts, implies “some genetic control and the action of natural selection”  BUT is it adaptive to communicate your presence to a predator?    What is “coevolution?”


Physical attributes of communication:

1. Sender

2. Receiver

3. Channel (modality, can be almost any sense)

4. Noise (“background”)

5. Context

6. Signal (indicates internal state , potential actions of sender)

7. Code


SIGNALS can be

1.  Discrete or Graded (digital or analog)

2.  Combined to create a new meaning: composite signals; varying syntax (order of presentation of components)


What interactions can be called communication?

1.  Vegetative (growth, tropism: plants, protists, sponges)

2.  Tonic (sustained “tone” — metabolic processes, by-products; protists and typical lower metazoans, but occasionally higher forms)

3.  Phasic level (sudden change in “tone” or an “event” –specialization of emitter and receiver organisms)

4.  Signal level (specialized structures (biosocial level (controlled by organic processes such as repro, parental care) and psychosocial level (complex patterns with increasing role of experience, especially social)

5.  Symbolic (develops through social interaction)

6.  Language (abstract)





  • any detectable trait of another organism is a potential signal
  • at every level of organization


  • nonverbal communication resource: http://soc302.tripod.com/soc_302rocks/id6.html






The bird models.  Birds are very diverse.  Many species have only calls (simpler, non-reproductive sounds) while the order Passeriformes (“songbirds,” or “perching birds”) have songs (complex reproductive vocalizations).


In non-passerines, calls (including those of reproduction) are relatively “impervious to environmental effects” (the isolation experiment does not affect their calls).  BUT passerines range in song complexity from cowbirds that have fairly species-typical songs (North American Cowbirds (like European cuckoos) are parasitic on other birds.  Females raised in isolation will not respond to the calls of any male except one of her own species; then she will immediately adopt the “copulatory posture” (a good sign-stimulus   IRP    FAP) (King and West 1977 cited by J.T. Bonner 1980)  through mynahs and some starlings that can imitate other organisms.  Sparrows represent an intermediate species with respect to song development: they modify their songs during development but only within limits.


In E.O. Wilson’s view, “Perhaps the single most important result [of studying bird song] has been the demonstration of the programmed nature of learning in the ontogeny of song, a lock-step relation that exists between particular stimuli, particular acts of learning, and the short sensitive periods in which they can be linked to produce normal communication” (1975s:80).



Song Bird MODEL


Normally: males develop a song and females do not (unless injected with testosterone)


Isolated males in quiet surroundings: before critical period they develop their own song; after the critical period they are “normal,” developing their species-typical song


Isolated males that hear recordings (during the critical period):

            if of another species, they develop their own song;    

            if of their species played backwards, they sing backwards

            if own species song is played before or after critical period they develop their own song

            if deafened before the critical period: no song; after critical period (but before it will be full primary) it deteriorates



There are at least two major strategies of song development:

1.  Imitation; particular of adult conspecifics

2.  Invention



1.    Are there templates?

2.   Is there a sensitive period


Observations and experiments:        

1. Investigation of marsh wrens, a species that has many kinds of songs and in which neighbors share identical ones:

A researcher reared two groups with controlled exposure to songs; one group exposed to songs before day 65, the other only after day 65. The result was that only the “tapes before day 65” group learned, but there was no improvising



Other Variables. While hearing other birds is a key feature of song learning in many species, there may also be other context variables such as

Social factors (white crowned sparrows have their sensitive period extend when the tutors are live)

Photoperiod (affects duration of sensitive period)

Quantity.  The amount of adult song (affects ability to learn new songs in future years)

Dialects.  In white crowned sparrows, regional dialects are common.  Full song develops at about 200-250 days, but the capacity is present earlier: If they are caught after a few months (after they have heard older males) and kept in isolation, they will still develop the song much later –but if caught much younger, they will not express the dialect of their elders: the basic song of the species is there, but the local dialect is not.  But even the species “skeleton” of the song has an element of learning: if the bird is deafened so it cannot hear itself practice, its species-typical song will be a series of unconnected notes (Konishi’s work)


What is important here is that there are 3 levels of development:

         1.  Inheritance of basic song patterns

              2.  Learning: Trial-and-error learning based on feedback of one’s own song

         3.  Elaboration based on hearing the more developed songs of more mature males





OPTIMALITY is a major issue: signals can simultaneously inform, attract, repel, or confuse friends and foes alike.  Ask questions about how the biotic and abiotic elements of the environment, each or in combination, can make one communicative modality more or less expensive.   –For example, many signals that communicate the presence and vigor of a male (interested in mating) might also attract predators.



“People can be tempted to be dishonest with one another: to exaggerate our income to someone we’re dating, for example, or, conversely, to understate our income to the Internal Revenue Service. Although morality does play a role in the degree of truth imparted in the messages that we actually deliver, we also use a rational calculation of costs and benefits to decide whether to dissemble. But when animals communicate, we don’t necessarily expect individuals to make decisions based on either moral standards or societal rules. Rather, we expect the rules determining the honesty of a signal to be imposed by natural selection, with costs and benefits ultimately measured in terms of relative reproductive success. How natural selection works to keep animal signals reliable, and the nature of the outcome, is currently a central question in animal behavior. Bird song provides an excellent model for exploring the mechanisms that keep animals honest as they pursue mates or defend their territory, and may ultimately help us to understand how communication, including our own, has evolved.” (from William A. Searcy, Stephen Nowicki (2008) “Bird Song and the Problem of Honest Communication”  American Scientist, March-April: 96: 114-121)








Ritualization is the evolutionary process whereby normal motor patterns or fragments of motor patterns (“primary somatic responses”) or motor patterns expressed in unconventional contexts (“secondary somatic responses”) develop communicative function.  Then, it has any communicative function, there is selection pressure to make it a more effective or   efficient means of communication.  Any attribute of an animal upon which   natural selection can act–behavioral, physiological, developmental, or   morphological traits–can be the basis of a communicative signal.   [more on ritualization]


Verbal vs Non-verbal evolution in humans: In recent years and alternative hypothesis about the evolution of language has emerged.  Many researchers now believe that hand gestures preceded speech. IF the GESTURE HYPOTHESIS is correct, then gestures should have different meanings in different contexts (including corollary gestures).  Amy Pollick and Hans de Waal have observed and reported on this in the Proceedings of the NAS (2007): They observed 31 gestures and 18 facial or vocal signals.   The vocal signals meant the same thing in different species but the gestures had different meanings in different contexts.    BUT ALSO, vocalizations can be regarded as a specialized sort of gesture … in that it is muscle control but in larynx, tongue, and mouth control of respiratory movements — turns out that the brain areas responsible for creating & understanding speech (Broca’s and Brodmann’s areas of the left hemisphere) also have some control of gesture.  NS 05May2007


(EID ALERT: But Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, cautions against drawing firm conclusions about the evolution of language from studies of captive chimps and bonobos, given their capacity for imitation. Some of their gestures may be “contaminated” by interactions with humans, he says. “One must study these species primarily in the wild. NS 05May2007)


Pictures to Words. A hypothesized origin for written language takes inspiration from the observation that many symbols are represented in ancient cave art throughout the world.  Presumably a consequence of shared human biology or impulse.  Paintings seemed likely to represent entopic phosphenes and Handprints?  (see Paleolithic Hand stencil project at Durham) (then Genevieve von Petzinger on symbols found in caves all over Europe: TED talk on You Tube). 

Also, in Asian art studies we can find an unexpected connection between written communications and representational art.  “… it is common knowledge that Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and painting, known as san-chiieh, or the three perfections, have been practiced together in single works of art.  …   The ideas that painting and poetry are interchangeable modes of expression and that an artist can readily transpose his creative impulse from one mode to the other tend to obscure their true relationship and their respective functions. Language and visual images are two distinct forms of expression; the imposition of one upon the other can either enhance or detract from their individual contributions. … “It was Su Shih (1037-1 101), the leading scholar-artist of the late Northern Sung dynasty, who first advocated that there is “poetry in painting and painting in poetry.” In an effort to represent true landscape, early Northern Sung painters first concentrated on capturing the principles of nature. As the painter felt the increasing need to express emotional response in his landscape, he turned to poetry for inspiration.”   (from Wen C. Fong And Alfreda Murck (1991) “Introduction: The Three Perfections: Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting.” In: Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting. (Edited By Alfreda Murck and Wen C. Fong) Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press.  (p. xv)




What questions can you ask about proximate cause of a communicative act — and the  input, integration, and output of stimuli (information) that evokes a communicative act.  “Ritualization” tells us that many physiological processes (like anatomical structures) have multiple functions.  Some of these can be built on to reveal specific aspects of the inner state of the communicator   



Physiology note: Irvine, Calif. , October 20, 2004 —  High stress levels during infancy and early childhood can lead to the poor development of communication zones in brain cells – a condition found in mental disorders such as autism, depression and mental retardation. —  http://today.uci.edu/news/release_detail.asp?key=1230


An assignment inspired by commentary heard on NPR this morning (3/31/2018) on a new book,  World Make Way: New Poems inspired Art from  the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (“Lee Bennett Hopkins and the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked a number of poets to look at great classic art from the museum’s collection and reflect their feelings in new poems.”)

METACOMMUNICATION: communication about communication.   When communicating, we often transmit (consciously or not) messages inside (or alongside) messages –highly variable, depending on the media that predominates and the messages communicated.  (see NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION)

As in many communicative systems, ART takes advantage of the capacity for METACOMMUNICATION.  like all communications, “metacommunication is a form of communication that means different things at different levels. . . . The concept of metacommunication was introduced by Gregory Bateson and others. . . . In its basic form, a metacommunication is an act of communication between two agents that also communicates something about the communication itself, or about the relationship between the two agents, or both.  Metacommunication is one of the characteristic features of complex systems.


 Forms of communication which underlie or take place alongside a given expression or perception of art, serves to supplement, complement, or enhance it; an instance of this.


In other words, specific aspects of signals (context, intensity, tone) can be more-or-less subtly adjusted to affect meaning.  Saying “yes” when your eyes say “no,”  tone of voice, associated with play signals — all the physical attributes can affect meaning and are thus options natural selection can work on to evolve new signals (see ritualization).  “Body language” and facial expressions are as potent as tone of voice or volume in communicative signal.  “Humans can detect facial expressions of both simple, basic emotions and expressions reflecting more complex states of mind. The latter includes emotional expressions that regulate social interactions (“social expressions” such as looking hostile or friendly) and expressions that reflect the inner thought state of others (“cognitive expressions” such as looking pensive).” 


…  “To explore the neural substrate of this skill . . . Lesions to all of the right prefrontal cortex—not just the ventromedial portions—led to a specific deficit in recognizing complex social expressions with a negative valence. The deficit in the group with right prefrontal cortical damage may contribute to the disturbances in social behavior associated with such lesions. The results also suggest that the amygdala has a role in processing a wide range of emotional expressions.” (Shaw et al. (2005) Differential Effects of Lesions of the Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex on Recognizing Facial Expressions of Complex Emotions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.17:1410-1419)


PROSODY — a metacommunicative “musical” quality of speech reflecting its underlying emotionality by means of duration, intensity, frequency, and “smoothness” of change. It can be regarded as an affective component of speech AND in humans, seems to be dominated by the RIGHT cerebral hemisphere (as opposed to the typical propositional language in the LEFT hemisphere) Find out about “motherese.”





Predators and prey, competitors and cooperators, often communicate, sharing information in a mutually adaptive way. 

  • This doesn’t mean that prey does not get eaten, but it can serve various functions that enhance efficiency: an antelope that can escape a cheetah begins stotting, or the weak or wounded display their infirmity to the benefit of their social group and the predator.
  • All symbiotic partnerships












“Language is a universal skill in humans that develops even when children are raised in impoverished linguistic environments. In contrast, nonhuman primates–even when reared in the most supportive surroundings–appear unable to learn language beyond the level of a two- or three-year-old child. Identifying the evolutionary changes that underlie human language, however, has proved to be an extremely difficult problem. The anatomical changes to the supralaryngeal vocal tract that support language co-occurred with changes in brain structure, and language itself evolved over time, leading to a dynamic interplay between biology, function, and environment (Christiansen & Kirby.  2003. Trends in Cognit. Sci.7:300). To complicate matters, language apparently evolved only once and has left no fossil records.”  (from JT Devlin’s review of Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language. by Philip Lieberman; Science  10 Nov 2006 314:926-927)  (more)


Detecting the emotional tone of a verbal signal.  When people hear words spoken  with anger, sadness, relief, joy or no emotion, the fMRI brain scans indicated that listeners distinguished the emotions.  Using a multivariate pattern analysis of activity in the auditory cortex,  by using a method called multivariate pattern analysis, according to researcher Thomas Ethofer, “We demonstrated that the spatial pattern of activity within the brain that processes human voices contains information about the expressed emotion.”  SOURCE: Current Biology, May 14, 2009.   Other species?












IS conspecific communication the basis for EMPATHY? can empathy exist between species?  (disconnected)

Exchange on a specific sort of poetic metacommunications: “What may be lost in immediate comprehension is made up by the energy forced into images by the compression of verb and noun and adjective into phrases” — More (disconnected)

SELF RECOGNITION and even SPECIES RECOGNITION can be a communications issue.  Behavior can be affected by the perceived species identity of another individual.  This can and has been be exploited by humans for political purposesMore  (disconnected)



From the Glossary:  Symbiosis: A relationship between two or more organisms that might be parasitic (one benefits at the expense of the other), mutualistic (both find the relationship advantageous — often necessary to one or both and not harmful to either) or commensal, in which one member of the association benefits while the other is not affected. ectosymbionts livehttp://www.fact-index.com/e/en/endosymbiosis.html on the body surface of the host (including inside the digestive tract or the ducts of exocrine glands; endosymbionts live in the intracellular space of a host. See also: mutualism, parasitismhttp://www.fact-index.com/s/sy/symbiosis.html.